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Riga Summit – To Visa-free or not to Visa-free? That is the question

March 19, 2015

Some months ago, in the usual Ukrainian populist (and therefore unwise) political manner, President Poroshenko stated he expected the Riga Summit in May to produce a Visa-free regime for Ukrainian tourists within the Schengen nations, beginning 2016.

“I would like to discuss the Eastern Partnership’s Riga summit to be held on May 21-22 with the European commissioner. It is extremely important to us, and our main expectation from the summit is a positive political decision of the EU, opening opportunities to us for the practical and technical introduction of visa-free regulations for Ukrainian citizens as early as by the end of this year.”

Clearly President Poroshenko is yet to learn to manage his own expectations, let alone those of his people – and this despite several lessons from the Europeans since Russia started its (guns and tanks) war with Ukraine.

Some would perhaps expect the president to tone down his expectations, and yet further curb his public rhetoric, when the illegal annexation of Crimea met with untimely, reactionary and timid sanctions from the Europeans.  This despite the gravity of Russia unilaterally throwing international instruments such as the Helsinki Final Act under a bus.

If that lesson was not enough, then the fact that the Europeans have not further enhanced such timid and untimely sanctions despite continued and consistent Russian sponsored (and managed) disregard of ceasefires under Minsk I and II, whilst not arming Ukraine with defensive lethal weaponry despite pleas to do so, is yet another lesson.

A further lesson to come, is likely to be the rebuffing of the Ukrainian request to the UN, Council of Europe and EU for peacekeepers following the favourable vote of 341 Rada MPs to make such an international request yesterday.  That Russia will likely veto any UN request is expected.  That the EU will not support an Eulex type mission in the absence of a UN mandate, despite the pleas of the host government, is a likely (though not definite) extension.  To do so without a UN mandate would be seen by too many capitals as a “provocation” that The Kremlin would react to – similar to arming Ukraine when it requests it.  That such peacekeeping missions generally set, rather than roll-back, facts on the ground, is for now an irrelevance.

The Riga Summit in May is certainly not predisposed to deliver upon President Poroshenko’s publicly declared expectations relating to Visa-free travel for Ukrainian tourists within Europe.  If it doesn’t, then yet more political points will once again be lost by the president amongst the Ukrainian constituency that counts, the 20 – 45 demographic that is generally reform-minded.  Not the constituency any government carrying out unpopular reforms can afford to unnecessarily alienate or lose.  It is not that the reform-minded will be any more or less reform-minded with or without an EU Visa-free regime, it is a matter of further undermining belief in the words and political capital of the president.

Indeed, despite Ukraine finally introducing and issuing biometric passports – only those holding biometric passports would qualify for the Visa-free regime – and therefore now starting to meet the technical requirements, doubts remain regarding the EU allowing such free movement to go ahead regardless of Ukrainian adherence to European diktats.

This realisation is now starting to be understood within the Ukrainian government – only after having trumpeted its expectations to the public.  Pavlo Klimkin has started stating that the EU is in no rush to deliver on the agreement – “The EU has concerns about security. And that’s one of the Russian scenarios. The European capitals say: how can we give Ukraine a visa-free regime if there is no control over the border?”

That would seem entirely sensible – prima facie – except Ukraine has more than one border between eastern Ukraine/the Donbas, and the EU.  One in the east has a Russian created hole in it – the others not.  Ukraine’s common borders with the EU nations remain as robust (or porous) as they were prior to Kremlin actions in the east.

So is it really as entirely sensible as that statement appears prima facie?

What security concerns are increased by allowing a Visa-free regime only for those that hold a biometric passport?

As the entire point of a biometric passport is that is it a far more robust form of identity, it is surely a far better document to insure the holders identity is genuine, and thus European security is enhanced.  Otherwise the Europeans would not insist upon its introduction as part of the Visa-free regime, and only accept those that hold a biometric passport as qualifying for Visa-free travel.   45 million Ukrainians stampeding over the EU borders, biometric passports in hand, upon any Visa-free regime implementation is not going to happen – a Kremlin controlled hole in its eastern border or not.

Biometric passports, having only just begun to be produced and issued a few weeks ago, therefore remain as rare as rocking horse sh*t.  It will take years to issue biometric passports to all Ukrainians that want one – perhaps close to a decade to issue them to all Ukrainians if they were to become a mandatory internal document too.

Thus even with a very simplified Visa regime, for the vast majority of Ukrainians that will not hold biometric passports any time soon, it will be the EU Member States that will continue to grant most Ukrainians their Visas.  The issue of European security will remain with a starting point that is the EU Member State that grants the Schengen Visa for years to come.

As of today, the EU Member States are still issuing Ukrainians with Visas.  The Schengen Visas are not biometric (unlike the UK Visa) and neither are the Ukrainian passports into which they are affixed.

By way of example, the Greek Consulate in Odessa has a Schengen Visa turnaround time of between 24 – 72 hours (Bravo).  Aside from, perhaps, an Interpol, Europol search and/or check with the Greek national police database – or not – it seems that refusal is likely only to be due to the documents being completed incorrectly, or a required supporting document being absent (unless you happen to be on a “list” of those deemed unwelcome).  Otherwise, it is welcome to Greece, please spent a lot of cash whilst you are here – and by extension, welcome to the other Schengen nations should you decide to fly onward from Athens.

The lack of Ukrainian control of its borders in the east with Russia has been the case for almost 12 months, and is not likely to be reestablished any time soon.  Throughout the duration, and without suspension or interruption, the EU Schengen Member States have continued to issue non-biometric Visas to non-biometric Ukrainian passports.  To this day, the normal, non-biometric service (or lack of service, depending upon issuing Member State) continues.  Clearly there has been little overt reaction to the ruptured Ukrainian border in the east when it comes to changing the Visa system, or refusing/suspending access across the Ukrainian-European border to the west.

It therefore seems unclear how Visa-free biometric passport holders would radically change the status quo regarding security.

Thus what EU “security concerns” can be raised in delaying (indefinitely) its promises that facilitate a Visa-free regime only for those with a far more robust biometric travel document?

It is easier to fake or obtain a fraudulent biometric passport than it is a non-biometric passport in Ukraine already?  Unlikely.

Does a Visa-free regime for biometric passport holders remove or invalidate all the other security measures the EU has at its borders?  Measures that have not noticeably changed since Russia punched a hole into Ukraine’s eastern border a year ago.

Would the ability to stop, check, detain or return individuals be somehow lessened due to the commencement of a Visa-free regime for those with biometric passports?  No.

Are the increased security concerns relating to “terrorism” and “terrorists” from eastern Ukraine entering the EU and causing havoc?

The Ukrainians, Americans and Europeans waste no time in identifying the real identities behind the “call-signs” of those fighting in eastern Ukraine.  Are these people more, or less, likely to try and gain a Ukrainian biometric passport, or attempt to get a non-biometric Visa in a non-biometric passport, if wanting to head into Europe as a Ukrainian for the purposes of mischief?

Perhaps all intelligence relating to the nefarious, the suspected, or the wanted, ceases to either exist, be shared, or be actioned, due to biometric passport holders being granted Visa-free?  Has intelligence sharing decreased, rather than increased, between the EU and Ukraine since the war with Russia took a physical format?  One would suspect something of an intelligence sharing uplift.

As the Europeans at least go so far as publicly acknowledging many fighting against Kyiv in eastern Ukraine are “Russian volunteers”, have the European schengen nations reduced the amount of Visas they are granting to Russian citizens, or introduced additional checks upon Russian applicants – just in case they fought in The Donbas whilst “on holiday”?  It is more likely the EU will be keen to increase the amount of Visas issued to Russians, rather than reduce them, in an attempt to show EU greener grass and administer democracy and rule of law to those that visit via osmosis – as flawed or as hopeful a policy as that may or may not be.

Are there not enough willing, if less than bright, already within the EU that will act on the Kremlin behalf?  All those loony-left and swivel-eyed far right that are attracted to the Alexander Dugin flypaper – possibly for later cultivation by the Russian secret services – obviously exist in numbers sufficient to question whether an “eastern terrorist” will have to go follow the “biometric path” to enter and then engage in nefariousness within the EU.  That is if the “eastern Ukrainian terrorist” hasn’t already been granted a non-biometric Schengen Visa in an existing non-biometric passport, of course.

Is the security concern one of people, drugs, cigarettes or gun trafficking?

Is the Russian made hole in the Ukrainian eastern border now seeing a Golden Horde of Central Asian people flooding through it, en route to the EU to claim asylum?

Are illegal arms floating across the Danube Delta into Romania, or by train into Poland from Ukraine?  If so, is the success of such enterprises to be increased by orders of magnitude for a Visa-free biometric passport holder?  It seems unlikely.

Are Ukrainian biometric passport holders within a Visa-free tourist regime more likely to try and claim asylum or refugee status within the EU, than those that enter on a non-biometric passport with a non-biometric Tourist Visa perhaps?  The EU has hardly been inundated with Ukrainian refugees despite a year of war.

One may rhetorically ask if the EU-Ukraine readmission, after many reasonably successful years, has suddenly and mysteriously become null and void due to a Visa-free regime for biometric passport holders – or whether Ukraine remains obliged to robustly fulfill its bilateral commitments relating to its own, and third nation, migration and border responsibilities?  One has to suspect the latter remains very much the case.

Thus, in the absence of any clearly identifiable “security concerns” that have not caused any overt changes in the EU system of border management or granting of Schengen entry to Ukrainians since Russia punched a hole in its eastern border – one is left to wonder just how a Visa-free regime for biometric passport holders significantly increases European security risks, rather than decreasing them, per their purpose.

If the “security concerns” are indeed negligible (and they may be genuine based on something other than the obvious), what are the real reasons behind any European delay in implementing the Visa-free regime with Ukraine?

That the Kremlin won’t like Ukraine becoming Visa-free before Russia, and some EU nations don’t want to upset The Kremlin any further?

That Ukraine is nowhere near as technically ready as it claims to be – despite officially moving from Stage I to Stage II of the Visa facilitation agreement?

Is European domestic public opinion a hurdle with immigration being high on all political agendas?

Perhaps we will discover just what the “security concerns” actually are/purported to be, when the Riga Summit commences in May – then again, perhaps not.  In the meantime, it seems that President Poroshenko is quite likely to be given yet another public lesson by the EU regarding “expectations”.

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